A few weeks ago, in reviewing HBO’s “Enlightened,” I suggested it hadn’t cracked the tricky problem of how to generate comedy out of a character largely lacking in self-awareness. At the time, I wrote:
The trick to making a comedy with this kind of character work usually involves some combination of putting them in a position of power over the people they’re inadvertently offending, making them so blissful in their idiocy that it barely matters how often they embarrass themselves, or making them jerks in need of comeuppance.
Since then, I watched “Allen Gregory,” a new animated comedy that FOX will debut Sunday night at 8:30, and it follows that script to a T, giving us an oblivious central character who is able to bully and walk over everyone, who is extraordinarily pleased with himself and his cultured ways, and who is very much in need of comeuppance.
And in watching it, I realized that the game is much more complicated than I suggested earlier, because “Allen Gregory” is vastly more unpleasant to watch than “Enlightened” could hope to be.
Jonah Hill – who co-created the show with Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul – plays the title character, a 7-year-old who has been spoiled rotten all his life by his two gay dads, Richard (French Stewart) and Jeremy (Nat Faxon). They’ve home-schooled him, given him the tastes and speech patterns of a much older, more sophisticated man, and made him just about the worst person in the world. He calls his perfectly normal, likable adoptive sister Julie (Joy Osmanski) “pretty much the worst person” and, like both dads, treats her not as a person but as a trophy of their own politically correct awesomeness. Like biological dad Richard, Allen Gregory is condescending to and verbally abusive of Jeremy, who also does nothing to deserve it. When forced to go to public school because Richard(*) is having money troubles and needs Jeremy to get a job, Allen Gregory steamrolls over his new teacher (Leslie Mann), the principal and even potential new best friend Patrick (Cristina Pucelli), who doesn’t phrase an offer to have lunch together the way Allen Gregory would like.
(*) Whose character design makes him look exactly like Dean Pelton on “Community,” to the point where I just assumed Jim Rash was playing the part and was startled to learn he wasn’t. Not enough people watch “Community” for this to hurt the show with average viewers, but still… weird.
There are moments where Allen Gregory is supposed to seem sympathetic because he doesn’t know how to be a kid, and the more popular kids pick on him for it, but he’s such a colossal ass to everyone – as is Richard – that any humiliations he suffers seem wholly deserved. This show actually made me hate a 7-year-old. Well-done.
On this week’s podcast, Fienberg argued that the problem may not so much be Allen Gregory but how he’s positioned within the show, with no strong character to balance him out. And I can see that. His behavior isn’t really any worse than most members of the Bluth family; it’s that this show is told from his point of view, and there’s no Michael Bluth around to constantly point out the many ways in which he fails as a human being. (I loved GOB, but didn’t want to see a show where he was the central character, which is one of the many reasons “Running Wilde” failed.)
So, yeah, the comedy of arrogance and/or self-deception isn’t easy. It could be a problem “Allen Gregory” solves later on, either by softening its main character (and his dad) or by pushing supporting characters more to the forefront, but the version on display in the pilot is one I have no interest in ever watching again.